December 16, 2010 at 1:00 am

Michigan's new faces on the Hill

State's five freshmen legislators pledge to reflect voters' demand for change

Dr. Dan Benishek, R-Iron Mountain: 1st District, defeated Democratic state rep. Gary McDowell to take the seat of retiring Democrat Bart Stupak (Associated Press)

Washington Michigan's five new U.S. House members head to Capitol Hill in January to make good on campaign promises that led to Election Day victories.

And the four tea-party backed Republicans vowed during their first appearance in Washington as official congressmen-elect to stick to their guns.

"I'm doing what I was elected to do," said Rep.-elect Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who returns to Capitol Hill next month after defeating Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, in a 7th District rematch of their 2008 face-off.

His words were echoed by other Republicans heading to the Hill from the Great Lakes State: They want to cut government spending, slash taxes and repeal the Democrats' health care reform bill.

They're in good company with the "establishment" GOP leaders like incoming House Speaker Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and the new class of tea party backed members.

Many of those tea party voters will be watching.

"The election was just training," warned Dennis Kelly, president of the Petoskey Tea Party, which helped boost Rep.-elect Dan Benishek, R-Iron Mountain, to snatch the 1st District U.S. House seat from Democratic hands. "We're going to hold their feet to the fire."

Work on fulfilling those promises started the week before Thanksgiving, when Benishek, Justim Amash, Bill Huizenga, Walberg and Hansen Clarke, the only Democrat among them, headed to the nation's capital for Congress' biennial freshman orientation. The Congressional newcomers chose their offices based on a lottery system and spent the week networking with party leaders and stalwarts, and letting the higher-ups know what committees they'd like to work on.

But their first week on the Hill also showed just how divisive the tenor of Washington politics is these days.

While the freshmen were checking out office space and playing around with their new congressional Blackberries, House Democrats were busy tearing into Republicans for scuttling an unemployment benefits extension and trying to avoid a mutiny over keeping House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the party's minority leader when the gavels change hands in January. Meanwhile, in the Senate, tempers were boiling over the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, which most Republicans have refused to endorse despite White House pleas.

Compromise has to come

Though the mid-term elections threw control of the House to the Republicans, who have promised a sharp change in agenda in line with Walberg's goals, the Senate remains in Democrats' hands, albeit with fewer seats. And that means compromise will be essential if any legislation is to be passed.

But the four new Michigan Republicans heading to Capitol Hill didn't give any indication they'd bend.

"That's going to have to come from the other side," said Amash of Cascade Township, when asked about his willingness to compromise with the Democrats. "I was sent here to restore some sense of fiscal responsibility."

Indeed, cutting federal spending and taxes was top of mind for Amash, Walberg, Huizenga and Benishek, as they made their way around Capitol Hill in preparation for the 112th Congress.

"If the tax issue isn't taken care of in the lame duck session, that's our No. 1 priority," said Huizenga — who's replacing the retiring Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, and will serve on the Committee on Financial Services — on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts which he wants extended permanently for workers at all income levels.

But just how steadfast can they stand?

Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, making any attempt at some more controversial campaign promises — like repealing the Democrats' health care law in full — difficult if not impossible over the next two years.

It's unclear if Obama's recent tax cut extension deal cut with Congressional Republicans is any indication that Democrats will be willing to cross the aisle and support more radical changes from the GOP. Obama himself noted that he didn't want to make permanent some provisions, like the return of the estate tax at a rate lower and with a higher exemption than under the Clinton administration. And liberal Democrats in both chambers on Capitol Hill balked at the proposal, which drew ire at party caucus meetings in recent weeks and an opposition filibuster speech from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the nation's only self-avowed socialist in Congress who spent most of last Friday railing against cuts for the highest brackets of taxpayers.

Yet Michigan's newest tea party-backed House members see ample opportunity to influence legislation in Washington when they officially start their new jobs. Some of that influence will be channeled through the state's more established Republicans.

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, is expected to take over from Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee that'll oversee tax writing policy when the GOP takes controls of the House, and thus center-stage in any tax cut fight that'll erupt if the rates aren't extended before they expire at the end of the year.

That's drawing interest from Walberg and Amash, who both said before their trip to the Hill that they'd like to serve on the committee with Camp. Walberg expressed interest in returning to the Education & Labor and Agriculture committees he served on during his previous one-term stint in the House, while Amash said he also had interest in the Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Judiciary committees.

Working for Michigan

Both were more guarded once they hit the ground in Washington, with Walberg saying it was "too early to speculate" on which committees he'd sit on, and Amash saying he wanted merely "something that would play to my economics background." Benishek, the Iron Mountain surgeon taking over for the retiring Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, said he favored the Natural Resources, Transportation and Infrastructure and Veterans Affairs committees.

Rep.-elect Clarke of Detroit was the lone new Democrat from Michigan on the Hill, and one of just a few who squeaked past this year's GOP electoral wave. He also was the only new Michigan representative who didn't express especially strong feelings on potential committee assignments, though he'd rather not mull foreign affairs.

"The committees aren't a place I can get a lot done for Detroit, so they're not my top priority," Clarke said.

Asked about the prospect of being a rare Democratic freshman in a class defined by its conservative bent, the Detroiter said he was — so far, at least — "impressed" with his fellow new Michiganians on Capitol Hill, even if his party would be outnumbered nine-to-six in the state's U.S. House delegation beginning in January.

"We have our differences in policy and approach," Clarke said of his fellow Michigan freshman, "but I'm confident we can come together on the issues that matter for Michigan, with Detroit at the center of that."

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Detroit News Staff Writer Marisa Schultz contributed.

Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland: 2nd District, defeated Democrat Fred Johnson to ... (Associated Press)
Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township: 3rd District, defeated Democrat Pat ... (Associated Press)
Tim Walberg, R-Tipton: 7th District, defeated incumbent Democrat Mark ... (Nick Dentamaro / Jackson Citizen Patriot)
Hansen Clark, D-Detroit: 13th District, defeated Republican John Hauler to ... (Associated Press)